Early Years and Family
Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
Left to raise her children alone, Paxton worked at various times in domestic service or as a laundress, but her primary livelihood was as the attendance—or truant—officer for the city’s African American schools, a post she held for many years. Ain the Richmond Planet reported that she “is on the job each and every day. There are so many boys and girls who do not attend as they should, and Mrs. M. B. seems to keep on the run.”
First Baptist Church in Gainsboro, Roanoke
Burrell Memorial Hospital in Roanoke
Paxton’s obituary credited her with organizing Roanoke’s first Colored Women’s Voting Club. Alternatively identified as the Colored Women’s Republican Club of Roanoke, the group proved instrumental in helping register black women to vote in the 1920 presidential election, the first after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In the Richmond Planet,John Mitchell Jr.on the club, which he said “went over the top on election day.” With Paxton serving as president, the group inspired a reported 655 black women to register and vote. The showing contributed to Roanoke’s surpassing Norfolk, a larger city, to rank second to Richmond among Virginia localities in registering women for the historic election. “Roanoke, like all the other cities in the State of Virginia,” Mitchell continued, “was surprised at the interest that its colored women took in the affairs of the nation.” He predicted a bright future for the club and urged his readers to “Watch Roanoke.”
Paxton remained active in politics. In 1934 and 1935 she spearheaded a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership drive in Roanoke that was sufficiently successful to merit a photograph in theCrisis, the organization’s national publication. Among the new members enrolled during the drive was, who later achieved legendary status as a civil rights attorney. In 1936, Paxton was listed first on a nine-member Roanoke-area NAACP committee that raised money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund in support of nine African American teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women.
Paxton’s three children were noteworthy in their own right. Her eldest, William Herman Paxton, was an accomplished high school athlete who joined the United States Army and was killed in France during World War I (1914–1918). The Herman Paxton Post No. 161 (Colored) of the American Legion was organized in Roanoke in 1933. As a Gold Star mother, Paxton was president of the post auxiliary. Lawrence Paxton became a prominent Roanoke dentist after he graduated from the Howard University College of Dentistry. In 1956, at a time when few black citizens held elective office in the South, he was a candidate for Roanoke city council, and he was later chair of the biracial board of trustees of Burrell Memorial Hospital, among other posts. Her daughter Lillian Paxton was reportedly the first African American physical education teacher in Roanoke schools before she married and moved to Hampton.
Paxton, who suffered from chronic hepatitis and arteriosclerosis late in life, died in Roanoke on July 2, 1939. She was buried at Lincoln Burial Park, later known as Williams Memorial Park Cemetery. At her death a Virginia newspaper described her as “one of Roanoke’s most widely known and beloved colored citizens,” active “in all phases of civic and religious work.”